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Author Topic: Violence and Continuity  (Read 15702 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: February 02, 2006, 11:51:12 AM »

Administrator's note: this thread was split from this one.

Quote from: "TELLE"
-all the people at Superman Through the Ages  


Here's some things I love:

- Giving TELLE a hard time Cheesy
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Quote from: "Nightwing"
Even though I wasn't quoted above (why won't anybody ever quote me?  ) I can't help thinking some of this is directed at myself, resident Crusty Curmudgeon of STTA since...well, since before there was a forum (I started my crankery back on the KAL-L mailing list!).

If so, tough! I reserve the right to hate everything, and by the way stay off my lawn and turn down that music.

But I think a little perspective is necessary here. This site was started as an antidote to the 90s-era Superman and DC's edict that nothing before 1986 mattered. Rao made no secret that this site was for Pre-Crisis Superman lovers, and went out of his way to avoid acknowledging the character then in print.

Since then, a lot of positive things have happened at DC and Rao has been great about devoting attention and support to all of them. There may be some cranky forum fussbudgets who are never happy about anything, but I think what we've seen at STTA as an institution is the reverse of what you describe. Rather than a gradual descent into grumpiness and closed-mindedness, we have in fact seen a gradual thawing towards today's DC and a celebration of positive developments in Superman's world. Eight years ago this site treated Superman as a figure of nostalgia...today there are boards devoted to the latest titles.  


You are absolutely right. STTA's focus is directed onto Superman's history, and it is very, very reassuring and downright great that finally, we have something to see that is a continuation of that history, spirit and tradition instead of being in denial or embarassment of it.

It's good to know that Superman is good enough of a character that his history is, not just worth preserving, but worth having as an active thing that influences who he is today.

At the same time, could I get people to lay off INFINITE CRISIS? At least for the reasons that have been given so far. The source of all the perceived problems with INFINITE CRISIS is that that a flawed way of thinking about it (and by proxy, a lot of works like it) is present.

I don't agree that a light-dark spectrum exists. Another spectrum should be instituted for superheroes, where the things that make them likeable are present on an axis with "The Children's Brain" on one side, and "Teenager's Brain" on the other.

Let me explain.

Good superhero work can be produced that has an emphasis on plausibility, and good work can be produced that has an emphasis on innocence and charm.

The problem with cynicism about encroaching darkness is, it does not make the concession that superhero comics can't be gutsy, hardboiled H. Rider Haggard adventure stuff and "science fiction" focused.

In other words, targeting the "Edgar Rice Burroughs" audience (or at least appealing to this aspect of our mentality): adolescents looking for wish-fulfillment projections, adventure stories, unlimited power and unlimited sexuality. The sort of things that make TARZAN and CONAN THE BARBARIAN such a delight, the thing that makes just about every teenager go through a Robert A. Heinlein phase (which in my case never ended).

On the other hand, we have the Carl Barks mentality, which is valid too, personified in ALL STAR SUPERMAN, with an emphasis on Roald-Dahlesque "gee, look at this" concepts, characterization that is intentionally simplified to appeal to base emotions, and a charming detachment from cause and effect (e.g. the "This chariot flies because it is the will of Zeus" effect).

Both types of stories overlap because there's an appeal to the exotic and the abnormal. Uncle Scrooge travels to the Australian outback to prospect for gold, and Tarzan finds a lost city deep in darkest Africa. Both types of stories are very different, but they are united by the fact we like them for the same reason. It is a credit to superheroes that in the same genre, it's big enough for Carl Barks and Edgar Rice Burroughs. One type of story appeals to the kid in all of us, and the other appeals to the teenager in all of us. It should be noted that neither Carl Barks nor Burroughs insulted their audience's intelligence, despite the fact that one was writing for children and the other for teenagers.

Instead of Otto Binder on one end and Frank Miller on the other, a new, more appropriate standard ought to be considered, with Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek on one side, emphasizing action-adventure elements combined with strong characterization (readable to everyone, but has the most appeal to teenagers), and Grant Morrison on the other with his ASS.

What people point to "darker" comics is just bad writing. This is why continuity is so important: characters have to behave consistently with how they have been previously depicted as behaving. The reason something like Howard Chaykin's TWILIGHT is so nauseating (which has the DC space heroes depicted as sleazy sex fiends) is not because moral or immoral behavior IN AND OF ITSELF has value, but because Tommy Tomorrow, Adam Strange and the others would never do that sort of thing or behave as they were shown in that miniseries.

Ignoring continuity is bad writing. THAT's the problem, not so-called darkness, at least as such. Ignoring the basic tenets of storytelling too (having things not really happen, in other words) is bad writing, too.

The same problem can be seen on the "Children's Brain" side of things too, though not as visibly. Remember Marvel Comics's STAR Comics line? Was there ever a more saccharine, unreadable piece of pap than GET ALONG GANG, MADBALLS, or TERRY OF THE FUTURE or whatever the hell his name was? Both "bad" comics like say, Grell's LONGBOW HUNTERS and MADBALLS are unreadable for the exact same reason: they underestimate the desires and intelligence of the audience. For Grell, it's that he thought all teenagers want to read in an action-adventure book are pointed arrows getting faceless crooks, and for GET ALONG GANG, that all kids want to look at are colorful, distracting, hypnotic cartoon characters that sit around and blink.

And while we're on the subject: violence and death does not in and of itself make something unreadable. Heck, who doesn't love Conan's bathed-in-testosterone antics? Let me be upfront: I LOVE violence. I love it when Tarzan wrestles carnivorous apes and there's a macho pop when he snaps the bull ape's neck with his bare hands, and Conan the Barbarian swings his longsword and decapitates many a member of the Aquilonian Castle Guard. I love how in Homer, all those Greek guys just gush like fire hoses when big bronze picksticker spears burst into their sides. I love creature movies, because I like to see giant snakes eat idiot teenagers.
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« Reply #1 on: February 02, 2006, 01:34:27 PM »

Julian, I think the problem isn't so much violence per se, but the way it's been overused and abused by people who have nothing else to offer as creators.  It's a crutch for lazy writers who know that if they can write in a couple of eviscerations and decapitations, there's no need for good dialog, logical plotting or character development.

I agree comics need some violence.  No matter our ages here, we all grew up with violence of some sort or other in comics.  Maybe it was just Batman pummeling some crook, or a crook being fried in the electric chair, or Wolverine gutting a ninja.  There was that violence we accepted without blinking ("cool, when he hit that guy his jaw went 'Ka-Pow!'"), the violence we cheered on, ("Give him what fer, Spidey!"), the violence that disturbed us ("Dick's parents! No!") and eventually, the violence that scared or haunted us (in my case, an old Warren "Creepy" where some guy got his hand lopped off so his wrist looked like a ham in the butcher shop).  For my money, it was every bit as powerful...maybe more so...to have someone electrocuted off-screen as we watched the hero, horrified, mutter "Good Lord! (....choke!)". I got the message: someone died, it was gruesome.  What's more, I understood that this is a bad thing, whereas if I saw the guy's flesh sizzling I might have (depending on my personality) just thought, "Cool!"

The problem -- as I see it -- came when superhero writers realized they could up the ante, go bloodier and more graphic and get away with it.  Having a costumed hero -- like Wolverine -- kill someone graphically and without remorse was astonishing the first couple of times. It worked the same way early South Park worked ("Omigod, it's like Charlie Brown is cussing!") But soon it took more and more to shock us, or even hold our attention, until now I have trouble discerning some modern hero comics from those 70's black and white Warrens (which at the time seemed like subversive literature).  I certainly never thought I'd see a character in a Superman suit ripping another character's arms off at the shoulder.  (Well, maybe in a home-made comic drawn by a disturbed teen, but not an official one bearing the DC bullet).

Violence is the new cliche in comics, the boring old trick that gets trotted out month after suffocating month because it always sells.  It's every bit as tired and overused now as aliens and robots were in 50s comics, and if the industry survives another 20 years I'm confident we'll look back on this period the way people look back on 50s Sci-Fi Batman tales -- as a time when being trendy outweighed being true to a character's core concept.

Writers and editors know that the way to sell a book is to put "This issue: someone dies" on the cover.  What they don't always know is how to tell a decent story.  There's a lot of people out there with collections overflowing with "important" comics that are unreadable.  And there's a lot of publishers getting rich without delivering a product of any merit.

In short (too late!), I don't object to violence per se.  But I do object to using cheap stunts to appeal to the lowest common denominator.   IC may indeed be a great story overall (someday I may find out), but when I see people getting their heads disintegrated and their arms ripped off, you can see why I might think it's another case of reveling in violence for its own sake.
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JulianPerez
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« Reply #2 on: February 02, 2006, 07:06:19 PM »

Nightwing, you are quite correct - violence that doesn't accomplish an objective for the story is overused and pretty ugly, too.

I would not agree that this is the motivation behind IC's violence, however.

Generally, I liked a lot of Morrison's Justice League (anyway, it was a great way to kill time for a few years until Busiek could fulfill his destiny and come back on the book Cheesy ) however, one thing I did not like about Morrison's League is that there was no tension or anxiety, because there was never any sense that the good guys might lose. True, this sensation is an illusion, but it's an important illusion and a good writer can make us think it is there when it is not. The Morrison League was always assured of victory, and if they didn't, well it sure felt that way. In fact, Morrison's "Key" story and "Earth-2" story both stated it was a natural law of the DC Earth along with gravity and 1 + 1 = 2 that the Justice League always, ALWAYS wins.

Busiek, in eight issues, created a sense the sense of fear that had been absent from the JLA for years. He had them LOSE their first battle with the Crime Syndicate. He confronted them with a nearly overwhelming menace (the Void Hound) that was so terrifying in scope AND in intelligence and tactics too, that it made me honestly desperate to know just HOW the Justice League could possibly triumph over something like this.

One of the sequences had Captain Marvel turned inside-out by a tesseract bomb.

Of course, the Big Red Cheese was alright again, saying something like "I don't think anyone else could survive that as my invulnerability is magic." But for for a second there, we had a fascinatingly grewsome image of an inside-out Captain Marvel. Suddenly, a sense of anxiety is created about the whole mission.

The deaths in IC strike me more along the lines of the "Captain Marvel inside-out" variety: to create a sense of desperation to know, what sort of inventive solution might be created by the characters to get through this. How they would "steal" victory from the jaws of defeat.
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« Reply #3 on: February 02, 2006, 08:20:30 PM »

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The deaths in IC strike me more along the lines of the "Captain Marvel inside-out" variety: to create a sense of desperation to know, what sort of inventive solution might be created by the characters to get through this. How they would "steal" victory from the jaws of defeat.


You may well be right.  I suppose my problem is with the degree of gore shown.  The scene where Inconsequential 5th-Tier Character No. 1's head is vaporized is not as horrible as it might be...it's done mostly in silhouette.  The "disarming" of Inconsequential 5th-Tier Character No. 2 is another matter...it's quite nasty.

There are plenty of examples in history of really ugly things happening to people that we didn't have to see in detail to understand.  People were killed off screen, things were shown in silhouette...maybe we saw someone's shadow on the wall and knew what happened to it was happening to him, only more graphically.  Maybe we even saw a person lying on the ground with his hand coming into frame at an impossible angle and thought, "Hey wait, if his hand's over there, then his arm must be...EWWW!"  But the way it's done in IC 4 just strikes me as inelegant and vulgar, and for that reason it fails to impress me just as I'm not impressed by some lout who uses the "F" word five times in a sentence because he hasn't enough command of the language to say something truly cutting or witty.

It's really a stretch, but here's a movie example.  Shindler's List was a powerful film that used graphic violence to make a point, and I'm glad I saw it...I think everyone should at least once.  Having said that, I don't intend to ever see it again and I certainly won't buy it on DVD.  Going through it once can be life-changing, but going through it again is just masochistic (or maybe sadistic).

Similarly, having seen those pages of IC 4 online, I feel no need to have a hard copy sitting in my house.  

Quote
In fact, Morrison's "Key" story and "Earth-2" story both stated it was a natural law of the DC Earth along with gravity and 1 + 1 = 2 that the Justice League always, ALWAYS wins.


Didn't read "Key" but I read "Earth-2" and I thought what he said was that on Earth-1 the natural order of things tilted toward good, and on Earth-2 towards evil.  That wouldn't necessarily mean the JLA or the Syndicate CAN'T lose on their respective worlds, but I agree it does sort of throw a wet blanket on any attempts at suspense.

I know you're reading the Showcase GL volume now, so you know Broome pioneered this notion of the anti-matter universe being one where Evil reigned and people worked hard at being more evil.  It's a fun idea...in a comic book...but updating it to modern sensibilities takes it from merely charmingly silly to outright nuts.

It (Morrison's theory) is also clearly at odds with most of post-Crisis history, which has the good guys losing consistently.
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« Reply #4 on: February 02, 2006, 09:49:31 PM »

Personally, I think Johns's deaths were intending to accomplish something for the story, although you are right: if one of the greatest obstacles facing modern comics is excessive mayhem, then in IC Johns really, really put the petal to the metal.

To be perfectly honest, I've been wanting a real Superboy to show up and lay the everliving smackdown on Connor Kent for slightly over a decade now, and Geoff Johns actually gives me what I want. Which is cathartic, but odd; Geoff Johns is the only person that actually may get me to like that kid.

As for the idiocy of pointless violence, it's the same as the idiocy for any other pointless thing in a story. I have yet to be provided with an explanation for why, exactly, it was that all those grand old JSAers had to die in ZERO HOUR. Their deaths didn't add up to a greater scheme, didn't create any fear - they did it because they could and because they had a few pages to kill and because since the author of that particular work wasn't as good as Geoff Johns, to give a sense of weight to the story.

The most useless exercise in death for the sake of death was that story that Mark Gruenwald conceived in the 1980s about a serial killer that went after supervillains. His highest profile target was 19th Century themed Spider-Woman foe, Turner D. Century, which ought to tell you about the sort of people that were rubbed out.

At the time, I thought it was the lamest gyp in comics history, but in comparison, the "off camera" death of Mr. Terrific in that JLA/JSA crossover looks better all the time. It was used to catapult a mystery story, and it's unfortunate but true: Mr. Terrific hadn't seen much use in comics for the past few JLA/JSA crossovers, and the writers might have felt he served more of a purpose dead than alive. Perhaps these goals might have been accomplished in other ways, but at least the death was for a REASON, and served a purpose.

While Dennis O'Neil, at least to me, took himself far too seriously and was only really terrific on JUSTICE LEAGUE and HAWKMAN AND THE ATOM, at least the death of Dinah Lance's husband accomplished something - namely, her move to Earth-1 because there was nothing left to tie her down.
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« Reply #5 on: February 02, 2006, 11:04:44 PM »

Quote from: "JulianPerez"
one thing I did not like about Morrison's League is that there was no tension or anxiety, because there was never any sense that the good guys might lose. True, this sensation is an illusion, but it's an important illusion and a good writer can make us think it is there when it is not.


For me, just another argument for the brilliance of Silver Age Superman family titles contra more "adult" iterations of the characters since the 1980s.  The idea that beings like Superman, Captain Marvel, et al (especially when considered as valuable corporate properties) could ever really be in danger, as opposed to incredibly vexed, worried about others weaker than themselves, taxed to their limits, at odds with each other, or on the trail of a complex mystery/twisted plot, is absurd to readers of almost an age.

The best stories of any period play to the strengths of the characters.  The magical adventures and mysteries that Superman experiences are the most entertaining use of the character to me.  Almost as fun are adventures wherein minor or supporting characters experience jeopardy. (Captain America's Avengers of the 60s and 70s and the Busiek reboot is a good example).
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« Reply #6 on: February 03, 2006, 01:09:15 PM »

TELLE writes:

Quote
For me, just another argument for the brilliance of Silver Age Superman family titles contra more "adult" iterations of the characters since the 1980s. The idea that beings like Superman, Captain Marvel, et al (especially when considered as valuable corporate properties) could ever really be in danger, as opposed to incredibly vexed, worried about others weaker than themselves, taxed to their limits, at odds with each other, or on the trail of a complex mystery/twisted plot, is absurd to readers of almost an age.


This brings up an interesting point.  Now that I think of it, I can honestly say that the only times I *ever* thought, even for a moment, that Superman might not survive a story were in the Silver Age, most notably in "The Last Days Of Superman."  And that was achieved not only with no gore or terror, but -- if memory serves -- without so much as a punch being thrown in the entire issue.

Julian Perez writes:

Quote
As for the idiocy of pointless violence, it's the same as the idiocy for any other pointless thing in a story. I have yet to be provided with an explanation for why, exactly, it was that all those grand old JSAers had to die in ZERO HOUR.


Here we get into my biggest gripe with every major re-boot oriented crossover at DC, beginning with Crisis On Infinite Earths, continuing with Zero Hour and (to a degree) The Kingdom and now Infinite Crisis.  These are events that happen for no logical reason within the rules of the DCU or Multiverse; they happen because of editorial decisions in the real world, and the needs of DC as a publisher.

COIE happened because editors wanted relief from the multiple-Earths continuity, Zero Hour was done to fix the mess they made in the wake of COIE, Kingdom was meant to excuse all the ZH mistakes plus the ones that came after, and now IC is designed to wipe all THOSE mistakes away and start over.

Every time I read one of these things, I can't get into them because I keep imagining the editorial conferences that were behind every plot twist.  It's like that Daffy Duck cartoon where the big hand comes in and keeps redrawing the backgrounds...something about these "major crossover events" breaks the fourth wall for me and keeps me from getting totally involved.

Those JSA deaths are a good example; they were arbitrary and pointless and you couldn't read them without imagining Dan Jurgens checking off a little box on his list of "To-Do's"...."Wipe out the JSA...done!"

To me, there isn't one thing those series accomplished that couldn't just as easily have been done by an editorial edict behind the scenes.  When Julie Schwartz took over the Batman books in 64 or so, he abandoned Bat-Mite, Bat-Girl and Batwoman.  He didn't feel it necessary to kill them off in a story, or even explain their absence...he just decided not to feature them anymore and we all got the point.  The same thing when he got the super-books.  There was a lot less reliance on the excess baggage of the Weisinger years, but all those old things (Kandor, the Phantom Zone, etc) were still there if anyone needed them.  Those bridges weren't burned.

Frankly I would have been a lot more impressed if, in 1986, DC simply said, "Next month every title begins again with a new issue 1".  Instead of what we got...a big, long, confusing mess of a story that accomplished very little.

DC doesn't need to prove to me that they have the "guts" to kill of characters, undo history, reboot titles or "start fresh." What they do need to prove to me...and haven't yet....is that they can wipe the slate clean ONCE...just ONCE...and follow it up with a new, coherent and worthwhile continuity.  Otherwise I know that five years down the road there will only be yet *another* "major cross-over event" to undo the one I'm reading right now.
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« Reply #7 on: February 03, 2006, 06:10:51 PM »

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Here we get into my biggest gripe with every major re-boot oriented crossover at DC, beginning with Crisis On Infinite Earths, continuing with Zero Hour and (to a degree) The Kingdom and now Infinite Crisis. These are events that happen for no logical reason within the rules of the DCU or Multiverse; they happen because of editorial decisions in the real world, and the needs of DC as a publisher.


I think you've hit the head on the nail of one difference that bothers me: the idea that writers no longer think of the world they write as "real."

Steve Englehart was one of the best writers at this. In his DETECTIVE run, Stainless Steve had one of the members of the Tobacconists' Club mention when Boss Thorne attempts to get Batman run out of town, that Ra's al-Ghul had attempted a similar plan, and Batman beat the wrap there. Characters remembering their history is one thing that makes the world more real. And having the past influence current characterization is another way: someone WOULD be more skeptical of Boss Thorne's plan (especially nervous milquetoasts like the members of the Tobacconists' Club) if only a little while before, someone had tried and failed at something very similar.

Further, Steve was able to make concessions on what was going on in another person's book in OTHER books. For instance, he did not use Captain America during his Nomad period in Steve's AVENGERS run, because Steve Rogers had lost faith in his country at the time and was seeking to rediscover it - he would not have been able to participate in AVENGERS. Kurt Busiek too, does this well: in his own AVENGERS run, when he has the Black Panther guest-star, he mentions in that book when the Black Panther appears that he was "going to compare notes with Iron Man about Wakanda's Vibranium Plague," an event then taking place in his own book.

Roy Thomas, too, was very good at this. For instance, he revealed in ALL-STAR SQUADRON that Earth-2 Dick Grayson, and one of the scientists that worked on Robotman with his same name, were related. These are not just anal details, guest-star appearances, and quotes that require little asterisks next to them to reference the issue where it happened in a box below. Creating interconnectivity is how you build a world. It makes the world more real if Iron Man and Black Panther can consult each other about the Vibranium Plague - even if this event is confined to the Black Panther's book. They aren't just commercial properties, but characters in a living, breathing world.

This trend can even be noticed in fan speculation. Previously, fan speculation centered on whether Ultron had Hank Pym's brainwaves and if the Vision's intangibility is achieved by shunting mass to the other dimension of the Golden Age Vision. Consulting some forums NOW, however, it's all about people making decisions based on the sales of the books. In other words, fans have been transformed from fans into miniature unpaid economists.

Why is it nobody but me and Al Shroeder III have noticed that Roy Harper and Jim Harper have the same last name, and wondered if they were related?

At the same time, I look forward to the ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, yet I wouldn't be caught dead with an Ultimates in my pocket. Why? Because DC continuity is so dysfunctional post-Crisis and post-everything, it's such a non-continuity thanks to it being constantly monkeyed around with that something being set OUTSIDE is actually a relief. The same is not true of the Marvel Universe, at least YET, anyway. Sure, we've got Brian Bendis writing in HOUSE OF M that the Falcon speculating he wants to return to the Avengers, when in Priest's CAPTAIN AMERICA AND THE FALCON, he wants nothing more than to leave superheroing for good, but such unforgiveable lapses like this show nothing wrong with the framework itself. Dan Slott for instance, is making wonderful use of interconnectivity and Marvel history. The last person to do the same for DC was Tom Peyer in his HOURMAN, and even then, because of how relatively unaffected Hourman history has been.
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